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Friday, August 26, 2016

Hopes and Tears of Freshman Year

“When do you go back to school?” I asked Jaelin the other day; half-sorry summer was coming to an end, half-happy that I’d soon have my house back, free of my sons’ wayward friends and their abandoned Chinese food containers.

“Saturday. Milan goes tomorrow.”

“Wow. How did that happen?”

“I know, right?”

“I’m so jealous,” I said. “I wish I could go back and do my first day of college over again.”

As Jaelin’s little sister takes off for Syracuse and Noah, the youngest of the old neighborhood squad, moves into Monmouth, as posts of moms “feeling emotional,” pop up all over Facebook, I start to get a little misty-eyed myself.

My parents dropped me off at Shippensburg State College in the fall of 1975. I still remember the white jeans and blue top I painstakingly picked to wear for my college debut. I still remember watching my parents walk out the door after I made my bed with leftover linens. And I still have the little note that my mother slipped inside my favorite novel, appropriately titled, Leaving Home.

There was never a question that I would go to college. My older sisters had gone off one-by-one the two years prior. I couldn’t wait. I was ready to make my own way in the world, find new friends, live without parental rules and maybe even learn a thing or two along the way.

The anticipation and excitement of a new life looming is a true gift.

But when I was left alone in Harley Hall, all I felt was a great big uh-oh.

That’s what happens with new beginnings. You feel the fear and you either give into it or you just swallow the hiccup, take a deep breath, walk across the hall and say, “Do you guys like the Beatles?”   

Which, of course, is as much of an uh-duh question as asking someone today if they like Kendrick Lamar.

The four years go by, fast and furiously. You have more fun than you ever thought your already fun-filled life could hold. You meet the lifelong friends you never dreamed would fill the high school hole in your heart. You experiment. You create. You stumble. You fall. You get back up. You do the walk of shame. And then you do the walk of pride on your graduation day.

Contrary to popular belief, there is life after college and time ticks on. Finally realizing that your college romance was but a lapse of discretion, you fall in real love. You get married. You have a kid. And then another. And another.

And then, just like that, you wake up to the day that your own child is leaving for college.

You load the car and drive him down the turnpike, or fly with him to California. And you lug the luggage and set up the TV and haul the Bed, Bath and Beyond bags and organize drawers and smooth down sheets and say, “This mattress feels pretty firm!” when the sag is visible.

And then it’s time to go and you leave your jock of a son with a brainiac roommate from China who, if he knows a word of English, is choosing to keep it close to his vest. And you say, “This is great! If you go to Beijing, you’ll have someone to stay with!”

You want to tell him to take advantage of every day he has. To work hard but to leave time for fun. You want to tell him to do laundry regularly and eat healthily. To be open to new experiences and be friendly to new people. To play intramurals and join the animation club. To keep his room clean and remember where you put the extra toothpaste. You want to tell him that it’s OK to change his major and not OK to flunk a class. To knock on the door of the pretty girl across the hall and not to sit alone in the dining hall. To go to football games and embrace school spirit. To keep his hair short, his arms tattoo-free and his beard trimmed. You want to tell him that you’re proud of him and that you love him. You want to tell him to call. To text. To e-mail. About anything. Anytime. Even for money.

And so you do.

And then you go.

And then you cry.

You cry because you’re happy. You cry because you’re sad. You cry because you’re old. You cry because he’s young. You cry because you know that he’s going to drink too much, study too little and have his heart broken.

And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Lessons Learned on a Food Truck

“So how was it, Mama?” Max asked when I returned from a week-long stint on a food truck at a horse show in Vermont.

“Well, I was up at 5:15 every day. And you know I don’t get up before 8. I stood on my feet for literally ten hours a day. And you know I have those bad knees. It was steaming hot. No air conditioning. And you know how I feel about heat. I took orders from people all day long. And you know how I feel about taking orders. I spent hours bent in half, leaning down to hand customers their food. And you know I have arthritis in my spine, right? I missed all the good Olympics because I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 9:30 at night. And you know how much I love the Olympics. And I suspect I’ll smell like grease for the rest of my life.”

“So, tell me again, why did you do this?” my recent college graduate asked, somewhat rhetorically.

At that point I could have spewed off a litany of smart alecky remarks, beginning and ending with, “Well, SOMEone has to pay off your college debt.” But instead, I took the high road.

“Why did I do it?” I answered. “Well, when I worked that weekend in April I made all kinds of new friends. So, I got to see Carrie again and finally met her husband, Peter. I got to work with my friend Andrea. I got to spend a week with my sister. And besides, it was fun. You know me, I’m always looking for new friends and life lessons. And working on a food truck gives you a whole new perspective on life.”

I had a slew of odd jobs before I found my life work. I scooped ice cream at our family’s ice cream shop until it got bought out by Friendly’s, served popcorn at a movie theater until I got fired for going on a senior trip to Nassau, plugged cords into a switchboard working the overnight shift at a doctors' answering service, cold-called unsuspecting citizens in futile attempts to sell cemetery plots and was shamed and subsequently fired by a mean old man in the campaign button business.  Eventually I got a real job at TV Guide magazine and then a decade later as a copywriter at CNBC. Finally, I landed the best job of all –  albeit the least lucrative – working from home as a freelance writer while simultaneously driving the old minivan, watching sports and folding the laundry.

All have had their ups and downs, their sagas and sacrifices, but not a one has been what you’d call a life lesson job.

My sister Nancy’s best buddies, Peter and Carrie, recently purchased a food truck business that follows the horse show circuit up and down the east coast. For a quarter of the year, they live like carnies, packing up and moving on when the show comes to a close. Being the workhorse and good friend that she is, Nancy spent a good chunk of that time with them in this, their inaugural year as horse show food truckies. Being lesser of a workhorse, but still a good sister, I worked three days in the spring at a show in New Jersey and then committed to working the final leg of the Vermont Summer Festival Horse Show in August. 

Horse show people are an enigma to me. The Hermes belt buckles, khaki-colored knee-patch breeches and leather bracelets with horses’ names etched in brass – are all somewhat intimidating to me despite my WASPy, country-club upbringing. But whenever I feel like I’m on other side of the corral looking in, I do my darndest to find common pastures.

And while I missed the hunters and jumpers, didn’t get to see the Grand Prix competition and don't know a whole lot more about equestrianism than I did before I started, I found that life lessons can be learned in the most unsuspecting places. In this case, peering in and out from my perch on a food truck.

Hold Your Horses.
Whether you’re standing outside in a long, hot line waiting for your breakfast burrito or you’re inside the truck waiting for the cook to complete a five-sandwich order, just hold your horses. Being nasty won’t get the job done any faster.

Don’t cry over spilled milk.
Just own your mistake, clean it up and remember that an open container is a recipe for disaster.

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.
Grooming horses or chopping melons, watering show rings or stocking condiments, cleaning stables or wiping counters, everyone has a method to their own madness. It might not be the most efficient way. It might not be the right way. But even if their way drives you crazy, don’t let your madness trump theirs.

Never travel with more than what fits in your wagon.
Overloading can tax even the strongest of constitutions. 

When you’re not riding, don’t grab the reins.
You can control your horse. You can control your kitchen. You can control your children. As long as it’s your job, there’s nothing wrong with being in control. Just keep your control issues in your own territory.

If life doesn’t give you lemons, then push the iced coffee.
When your horse spooks, when the produce delivery is devoid of tomatoes, when a key employee takes an unplanned day or two or three off, skip the festering and fretting and go directly to Plan B.

If two ride on a horse, one must ride behind.
Remember, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish when a friend’s got your back.
If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
Even Vermont has its hot flashes.

Get right back in the saddle.
Thrown to the ground or growled at by your boss. Forgive and forget and get on with the show.

Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.
Because we all know what happens when that basket falls.

Life’s a dog and pony show.
Whether it’s an American Quarter Horse, a jumping Jack Russell, a Thoroughbred or a botched attempt at a labradoodle, you can’t judge a pet (or a person) by their pedigree. Keep in mind that we all use the same Port-a-Potty. 
Point your knives down.
A sharp tongue can do as much damage as a sharp blade.

As I slowly acclimate back to my sedentary life, sitting in front of a computer screen counting words rather than counting change, I got to thinking about my food truck lessons and how so much of it all comes down to faith. 

Faith that the truck would close down for the day before my body did, and before the french fries ran out.  Faith that my second-grade math skills would suffice when the line was long and tempers were short. Faith that that Victor would pull through and put a bag of ice across our shoulders before heat stroke set in. Faith that the lobster roll would pass the taste test of the man from Maine. Faith that the oven would light, the refrigerator would cool, the water would run. Faith that the blond-haired woman with the caprese sandwich and sweet potato fries would come back with the $12.00 she owed.

And faith that friends, as well as family, can actually work and live together for long, grueling hours in tight spaces. You just have to have faith that you have the right friends and the right family. And when you do, friends become family. And that's really what it's all about. 

But, of all that I learned on the food truck, I'd have to say the most important life lesson to remember is that you should always, always, make time to kiss the cook.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Down to Earth on Lake Mokoma

"You mistake us for a rich family,” my ever-sensible spouse has said more than once.

He’s right. I do live in the lap of luxury.  Perhaps more so in my mind than in real life. But still, the older I get, the more easily I am lured into luxury's lascivious labyrinth .

Unlike my easily-contented spouse, when it comes to vacation, I aim for high-end resorts with pristinely clean, over-sized rooms. I get giddy when I discover white comforters encased in sheets that get laundered after each and every guest. I feel joy when big, fluffy bath towels successfully cover my ample physique. And when the housekeeping staff generously replaces the Bvlgari soaps that I sneak into my suitcase, two somewhat conflicting thoughts come to mind. The first is “This is where I belong.” And the second is, “Sadly, the cost of my personal comfort is way more than I can afford.”

When I was young I could, and did, sleep anywhere. I slept in cars and on beaches, on beer-stained couches and cold, hard living room floors. But, as I get older and more miserly about my sleep, I get more and more discerning about where I’ll lay my head.

While I live in a very comfortable, very welcoming, very lived-in house, when I go away I want the complete opposite. I want white, sterile and impersonal.

Which is one of many reasons it took me 21 years to get back to Lake Mokoma.

Charlie and Beth are very dear friends of ours. But physical distance, conflicting schedules, too many cruises, and just plain life have gotten in our way and we haven’t socialized as much as we should have over the years. Luckily, Charlie has mastered the lost art of the phone call and has always kept us connected.

Charlie and my spouse grew up together outside of Baltimore. Charlie was a groomsman in our wedding who, at the rehearsal dinner, asked me to bless the sacrament of the Wildwood Blowout with a promise to never birth a child or in any other way prevent my spouse from attending this annual guys-only weekend.

Twenty-one years ago we spent a weekend at Charlie and Beth’s lake house in Laporte, Pennsylvania along with Carol and her husband Bart, who also grew up with my spouse and Charlie. We each had two kids at the time and I was newly pregnant with the third. I remember chasing toddlers, peeing constantly and not a whole lot else except that it was indeed a rustic cottage overlooking the lake. But, I’m sure we had a lovely time because they’re all lovely people.

I prescribe heavily to the somewhat debilitating theory that my dear, dead dad taught me. Always expect the worst and you’ll never be disappointed. So, in preparation for this year's trip to the lake, I convinced myself that my spouse and I would be crammed together in a lumpy double bed in the middle of a 90-plus degree heatwave with owls hooting after midnight and loons crooning before dawn, holding me hostage from my coveted sleep.
We arrived at the lake following an uneventful three-hour drive. We hugged and kissed and settled in on the deck for a long and leisurely lunch during which we caught up on the goings-on of our over- and under-achieving offspring. My spouse took to his bed for an afternoon nap, I stretched out on the lounger and we whiled away the hours until it was time for the "Magical Mystery Tour."

Now, I'm not one for mysteries, magical or not. I need to know precisely where I'm going and exactly what I will encounter. I am quite vocal about this and it's normally a non-negotiable. But, because Charlie and Beth haven't spent much, shall we say, quality time with me, I decided to internalize my anxieties and limited my questions to, "Can I bring my phone?" and "Am I wearing the right shoes?" 

Once we hopped into their Honda Odyssey, a minivan that rivals the old minivan, I felt as at ease as I get. We started out driving through the stoplight-less Sullivan County countryside and found ourselves winding our way up, up, up a mountainside with a very steep, steep drop off. When we reached the top, we posed for pictures that didn’t do the breathtaking view of the Endless Mountains an iota of justice. But, as I learned on my last cruise, that while every picture tells a story, the true essence of an experience can only be captured in the cameras of our souls.

After being wowed on the mountaintop, we traveled through a one-lane covered bridge, stopped at a genuine general store and landed at the High Knob Inn, a hidden hole-in-the-wall restaurant I would never, ever have entered on my own. We had a delicious feast of wings and ribs and salads and drinks but what was most fun of all were the stuffed animals adorning the bar. They were big and real and nothing like those I remember from Chuck E. Cheese.
After dinner we hit the links for a $5 mini-golf game under the sinking sun. I was the big winner and proud as a Spieth. I patted myself on the back with a gihugic chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone, even though I’m not eating carbs.

Cruise ship entertainment can’t hold a candle to this kind of throwback fun.

And it kept getting better. In the morning we took a three-mile hike around the lake, crossing the dam, poking around at the beach, fantasizing over which houses-for-sale would one day be ours and stopping to chat with every person we passed. We went to the Laporte Fireman’s Carnival at night time where I met, in the flesh, one of Sullivan County’s claims-to-fame, a real live American Idol contestant.

While the guys volunteered at the roulette wheel, Beth and I played Bingo for a quarter a card, using corn kernels for markers. When I got Bingo, I donated my winnings back to the fire department. All two dollars of it.

After the carnival, and a plate of sausage and peppers, we went back to the house to host a dessert party.

Charlie has been coming to the lake house ever since was a wee lad and knows just about everyone there is to know. Generations of Lake Mokomians grew up summering at the lake and then went on to raise their own children there. And a good many of those fun-filled folk showed up that night to eat, drink and reminisce.

Charlie's brother, Tim, came along with his bride (and my new best friend), Mary Jo. They met at the lake many moons ago and their son carried on the tradition, marrying there last fall. Then there was Pete, whose father was a preacher man just like Charlie's, bringing spark and stories after a cross-country trek with his wife, Camille, and their 19 year-old son. Along came Doug with his jokes and his lovingly outrageous wife, Erin (my other new best friend) who motored in from Chicago with three of their five dogs and a bunch of skiffs in tow. And crossing the path from right next door came the very personable Kathy and Dave, who happen to live the rest of the year on Cape Cod. 

“Aren’t there pretty places to go in California?” I asked. “Why would you leave Cape Cod for a little lake in Pennsylvania? Surely, there are some vacation locations between here and Illinois!"

But they all had the same answer. “It’s just not the same.”

Now I can have as much fun at a hokey carnival in Pennsylvania as dancing the hokey pokey on a cruise ship. I can play Bingo in Laporte or I can play Bingo in Bermuda. I can be awed by the peaks of Pennsylvania just as I can appreciate the summits of St. Thomas. 

But, they're right. It's just not the same.

In my short visit to the lake, I learned a thing or two. I learned that there's nothing like vacationing with friends you've known so long they may as well be family. And that there's something about waking up and throwing on the same Orioles T-shirt two days in a row, knowing that no one's going to notice. Not worrying if the wine spills on the floor or the cat hair gets on your clothes. I learned that there's something about teenagers who look you in the eye and actually care where you came from simply because you're a friend of that middle-aged man who they've known forever. About making do with what you have and not panicking that you forgot the vanilla ice cream. About meeting  lifelong lake friends who embrace you like you're one of their own.

Because you kind of are, just by association.

When you spend time with salt-of-the-earth kind of people, somehow your duct-taped minivan isn't quite so embarrassing. Your washed-and-worn shorts don't seem quite so faded. Your stomach doesn't feel quite so flabby. Your face doesn't look quite so wrinkled. Your wallet doesn't seem quite so empty.

But your heart. Your heart feels like it's bigger than ever.

And maybe, just maybe it is.

I probably won't ever own a lake house, but that doesn't mean I can't rent one.

And when I do, I know exactly where to go.

** And just an aside, that lumpy double bed I dreaded was actually a queen and so comfortable that I ran off to Sleepy’s upon our return and ordered the same one for my beat up old house that suddenly seems perfectly adequate .

Monday, August 1, 2016

60 Never Looked So Good

“Can you believe you’re almost SIXTY?” I said to my sister Emily at Gretchen’s birthday party last Saturday night.

“You too,” she sniped back. ‘Sick, isn’t it?”

Wednesday was Gretchen’s 60th birthday. Emily is right behind her.

But me, I’ve got a long way to go. Another 18 months and 8 days to be exact.

When I was young and foolish, I never thought I’d make it to 60. Nor did I particularly want to.

After all, who would actually choose to live a life in which you have to worry about underarms jiggling, eyelids sagging, cheek bones bagging and arthritic knees screaming?  Who wants to camouflage cellulite with Bermuda shorts and mask stomach rolls beneath loose-fitting tunic tops? Who wants to resign themselves to thick-soled shoes, gel bunion protectors and lumbar support pillows? And really, who wants to keep a pair of tweezers in the car for the sole purpose of plucking the not-so-occasional stray chin hair at a stop light?

Because that’s precisely what 60 is.

The problem is, despite my fading looks, aching joints and flabbing physique, there’s a major disconnect. I act like I'm half my age.

Gretchen lives in the neighborhood where I grew up. She moved in long after I moved out, but friends who never left our childhood enclave became great buddies with her and by association, so did I.

I was surprised when I learned that her Another Year Younger invitation was actually in celebration of her leap into the next decade. Gretchen is way too young to be 60.

As is my sister Emily.

And me, for that matter. But remember, I’ve still got a ways to go.

“Is your mom going to this party?” a friend asked when I mentioned I was going to my old neighborhood for a party.

“No, it’s just kids,” I said.

“You mean the party’s for someone’s grandchildren?”

I looked at her quizzically.

I guess it’s kind of odd to refer to yourself as a kid when your own kids are old enough to have kids of their own.

And it’s probably not the greatest idea to identify as a kid when you’re so clearly not one.

I started off the evening identifying as what I really am. An aging mother. I didn’t try to befriend Gretchen’s personable son, Quade, for myself. Rather, I asked if he would be interested in marrying my daughter, whom he had never met. He politely declined and I soon learned the reason why. There by the makeshift bar was his girlfriend Maddy, charming the guests with her quick smile and helpful hands.

“OMG!” I shrieked. “We have the same bracelets!”

Now, I’m the first to admit, I home in on the trends of the young and lovely. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to choose an iPhone case simply because a pretty 18 year-old bought the same one. I strut around wearing whatever shade of blue or green or purple or black toe nail polish the 20-something next to me in the pedicure chair picked. And I’ll nonchalantly paw through racks at Urban Outfitters, purchasing the sole XL sweater in the store just to say I shopped there.

But, my bracelets are not trendy. I wear silver bangle bracelets that annoy the bejesus out of my daughter but all hold special meaning in my heart. Maddy and I had not only the same Cape Cod bracelet, but the same Caribbean Hook Bracelet.

“Did you get it in St. Croix?” she asked.

“St. Thomas.”

Close, but no St. Croix.

We talked for a couple more minutes, me droning on about how I had lost my first Cape Cod bracelet that I never took off until I did and when I did I lost it and how I replaced it just last week when I was in Maine and…

“You really think she cares?” Emily asked rhetorically, as I told her of my coincidental connection.

My sister understands my somewhat inappropriate desire to be accepted by millennials. And so, as sisters do, she mercilessly mocks me when I've gone too far. But, she's got a bit of it in her as well.  One of the highlights of our adult lives was when Jenna Lloyd and Taylor Hiester both friended both of us after the Thanksgiving Eve party at the Schaeffer’s house last year.We literally squealed with delight.

Admittedly, I carry things a bit further than she does in my quest to be one of the kids. I actually try to keep up with social media and spend hours thinking up witty comments to post. By the time I do, their relevance has long passed.  I desperately try to talk the talk and have even been known to google expressions that confound me. And then I'll start using them ad nauseum.

“Fire!” I’ll say, describing something we once called neat.

Or, “That’s very lit.”

Or I’ll use both in the same sentence. “Fire! That’s uber lit.”

And the result is, I’m always just a little bit off in my modern vernacular.

“Wow, Anita, you’ve gotten so hip!” I exclaimed as Carl and Rosemary’s 20 year-old blond-haired beauty arrived on the scene, sporting an adorable frock and hawking a tray of gummy worm shots.

“Hip?” she said, her head tilting a bit to the side.


She smiled, because she is kind, and we moved on to the next hip topic.

“Hey, what did you major in?”

When that fell flat, my sister Emily graciously grabbed my arm and steered me toward Johnny and Richard Schaeffer. They are my kids' ages and have known us since they were born and I don't have to try to win them over. But when the conversation started turning south, as it inevitably will after a couple of gummy worm shots, Emily once again saved me from myself. She whisked me away to join our friend Mary Anne on the patio where she was tapping a toe as a live band played.

And ya know, they were no spring chickens either.

I'm not a dancer, but I danced.

I didn't embarrass myself by doing the Electric Slide or the Bump; I just embarrassed my sister by bobbing my head and shuffling my feet to a beat that only my tone deaf ears could hear.

We grabbed the good Doctor Dietrich from the clutches of his unclutchy wife Diane. We yanked Carl Kruse to the floor, shimmied with the birthday girl and sang into our fists with Dena Baker. We bopped about with Nancy and John Schaeffer and mopped our sweaty brows with crumpled up cocktail napkins.

We filled our wine glasses and filled them again. We barreled up the stairs to the bathroom en masse. We raided the buffet table long after dinner was served, scarfing down slices of flank steak right from the platter.

We laughed. And laughed some more. And danced. And danced some more.

When the birthday cake came out and Gretchen stood between Alex and Quade who, even after spending the day fraternizing with the old folk, still looked upon their mother so adoringly, I finally came to a realization that most people my age had reached decades ago.

It's really OK to get old.

We don’t have to document our lives on Snapchat. We don’t need to download Soundcloud or Tumblr. And though it sure sounds fun, we don’t have to play Pokemon Go.

We can just keep on keeping on and having fun the old-fashioned way. Because fun is something that transcends all ages.

And as long as we never start acting our age, we'll all get along just fine.

Happy Birthday to Gretchen and Emily and all the other sexagenarians out there. 
All I can say is I just hope when I finally get there, that I’m still as much fun as you are.